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The Radio Priest
October 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 6
I believed that, even though I can’t prove it today. I probably shouldn’t say it, because if there was one thing I learned during my career, it is that you shouldn’t say what you can’t prove. But I knew, I knew what I was doing. I knew I had the authorization of the Church, because Pius xi said in 1931 that too long we have waited to intervene in these matters of taxation and carelessness over the poor and the aged and the oppressed. He was reaffirming what Leo XIH spelled out in his encyclical Rerum Novarum , issued in 1891, the year I was born: the Christian concept of social justice. I think Pius xi summed up this concept when he stated that it is practically impossible for a man to save his immortal soul when he is unjustly denied the goods of this world. And the first good, the most important asset, is freedom. That gift comes from God. No state can grant it, and any state that tries to deprive men of it does so at the risk of its own life. The rest—and that includes most of the social concerns that Americans are now becoming agitated about -flows naturally from this premise. So you see, everything I did and everything I said was an attempt - and I’d be the first to admit, a highly fallible attempt- to promote and exemplify the ideals of social justice spelled out by these two popes.
This is the context in which you view your work?
Yes. But there is one other thing. I am a man under authority. I believe in it, I have tried to live it, I would gladly die for it. I didn’t start out that way, though. I was born in Hamilton, Ontario. My father was an American. I was the only child, and an only child, when he is a boy, is always spoiled by his mother, so they tell me. When my grandfather came to live with us, he insisted - and he had more money than he needed—that I go to a strict boarding school for my high-school education. And it was strict. The school operated under the Holy Ghost definition of education, which was, if you recall it, teach me goodness first, discipline second, and then a poor third comes knowledge. We had the goodness preached to us and taught to us, and it was very wonderful. But the discipline was something out of this world. One night at dinner my first year, my table was headed by a philosophy senior who had been a semipro boxer. I was simply impertinent. He said something to me, and I told him to go to the devil, and he walked around and just yanked me out of my chair and floored me with one punch. That was the rule. And when I got up I had to apologize to the whole table. Frankly, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. In one instant, I learned discipline.
When you finished college you had a vocational choice between politics, sociology, and the priesthood. Is that correct?
In the professorial sense I suppose I did. I was extremely fortunate during my undergraduate years at the University of Toronto to study under several of the most brilliant teachers in the British Empire. One was James Mavor, the famous Scottish professor of political economy, who taught, among others, John Maynard Keynes. As a result I guess you could say I became a Keynesian in economics at an early age. Another was Dr. Daniel Gushing, the priest-philosopher and good friend of the Belgian prelate, Cardinal Mercier, who had helped Leo XIII write Rerum Novarum . I loved Dr. Gushing, and through him I came to love and revere Leo XHI.
Did these men influence you toward the priesthood?
I would say, probably. The clergy I was interested in were the Basilians, secular priests who lived in a community and were dedicated to teaching, which is what I did for six years after my ordination in 1916. When the pope disbanded these associations we were given the choice of joining a religious congregation or order, or we could remain secular priests. I chose the second option, and on February 26, 1923, I was incardinated into the diocese of Detroit by Bishop Gallagher.
You acquired an early reputation as a pulpit orator. Did this help launch your career as the “radio priest”?
No, that was purely accidental. In 1923 a close friend of mine, Dick Richards, who was the chief distributor of Pontiacs in Michigan, bought the local radio station, WJR. The studio was on the top floor of Detroit’s BookCadillac [now Sheridan-Cadillac] Hotel, and I remember we used to have to climb an iron ladder to get into it. Well, you know radio was a pretty haphazard operation in those days. You went on the air when you could find somebody to do or say something. And occasionally I’d go over to the station and play the piano a little, or read something from Thomas Moore or Keats or Shelley or Tennyson.
Was this before you became the pastor of the Shrine of the Little Flower?